Around about the time that this film by Youssef Chahine was being shown at Cannes I went on a touring holiday, driving through Andalusia. One of my strongest memories was visiting the Great Mosque of Córdoba. I had not read up on the mosque before entering it and was very impressed by the space and the Moorish abstract designs. But I was taken aback to realise that soon after the Reconquista action in 1236 when the Spanish king took back the city, a cathedral had been built within the mosque. The clash between the serenity of the mosque and the garish clutter of the the cathedral I found to be quite shocking. Fortunately I still had to visit the restrained visual splendour of the Alhambra in Granada.
I had remembered my Córdoba visit when re-watching El Cid (1961) and I was pleased to have another opportunity to re-visit this important period of European history, during which the Arab-Berber culture of the Moors did so much to begin to educate the Christians of Western Europe. Much of the Renaissance of Western thought has its roots in Moorish Spain. Destiny is set in Córdoba in the 12th century and the central figure is the scholar, judge and physician Ibn Rushd, Latinised as Averroes (1124-1198). I’m not going to try to summarise the state of Moorish Spain at this time but it’s important to realise that the Muslim caliphates were based around several major cities in Andalusia and were as likely to plot against each other as much as against the Castilian Christians to the North. Youssef Chahine’s concern was to present the philosophical/ideological battle between Islamic thinkers rather than the struggle between Christianity and Islam (though that struggle will appear towards the end of the film). He was attempting a satirical and metaphorical film that would have meaning for Egyptian audiences witnessing the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Chahine himself was born into an Eastern Catholic family in Alexandria but he claimed to have no religion apart from his love of Egypt.
Averroes was a major figure in Córdoba, acting as a judge for the caliph, a physician for his local community and a writer of commentaries on the scholarship of the Greeks such as Aristotle as well as developing his own philosophical ideas. In this narrative, the caliph’s brother is one of his friends and he is visited by the caliph’s older son Nasser who is his supporter. But intellectuals are always in danger in autocratic states. The film narrative actually begins in Languedoc where a scholar is burned at the stake for translating Averroes’ works and teaching about them. His son witnesses the burning, escapes and makes the long and difficult journey to Córdoba, introducing us to the world of Averroes. We discover a lively community of gypsy singers and dancers as well as the pupils of Averroes’ teachings. It is all quite amicable and community-orientated. But trouble is afoot. A powerful sheikh is plotting to overthrow the caliphate and his plan involves seducing the caliph’s younger son Abdullah into joining a fundamentalist sect which will denounce and overthrow the caliph. Averroes becomes involved when the sect attacks Marwan a gypsy singer/poet and leading figure of his community. Averroes saves the singer’s life through his medical treatment and also acts as the judge when the would-be assassin is captured. He angers the caliph by sentencing the man to imprisonment rather than execution. Two issues arise at this point. One is the importance of the gypsy culture and the singing and dancing. Chahine as a young man was taken with Hollywood musicals and Destiny is, if not a musical, an epic melodrama with musical sequences and choreography – it’s also a form of biopic about Averroes. In fact it at times resembles popular Indian cinema in its use of musical sequences. I was reminded of another recent viewing, Neuve Sevillas (Nine Sevillas, Spain 2020) This film highlighted the Roma culture of modern Seville and its musical heritage.
The second issue is the key to the film in that Averroes is seen to suggest that it is possible to interpret the word of God. If God made humans to be intelligent he wouldn’t spell out everything but would expect them to think about his words in the Quran. It would be wrong to slavishly follow a book. ‘Reason’ and ‘faith’ are able to co-exist and an intelligent person learns what the dialogue between the two might be. This did not go down well with the caliph and certainly not with the fundamentalist sect. Averroes became a marked man and his writings became the physical target of his enemies. His supporters recognised this and began to copy his works and try to hide them in different places. There is a real possibility that Averroes will be attacked and his books burned. This is a long film (135 minutes) and I think that compared to some of Chahine’s other films, its narrative will mean much more in the Arab world than it will more generally in the international market. On the other hand the film looks wonderful (it was mostly filmed in Syria and Lebanon I think), the music is great and so are the performances – Chahine cast some very beautiful young men and women. Ironically, the film is a co-production with France and it became the only one of Chahine’s films to get a limited release in the US, meaning it was widely reviewed by leading American critics. I was quite dismayed by some of the American reviews. “A Cecil B. DeMille epic with songs and dances” was the tone of one review and only a few reviewers recognised the brilliance of Chahine’s filmmaking and the importance of the presentation of fundamentalist and humanist Islam in conflict. I shouldn’t be surprised I suppose. I’m reminded of another highly-skilled filmmaker, Alejandro Amenábar who made Agora (Spain 2009) a similarly ‘epic’ film about the attacks on the great library of Alexandria established by the Greeks and threatened by the newly Christianised Romans in the 4th/5th Century. The central figure is the philosopher/astronomer and teacher, Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz) and there are many similarities between Hypatia and Averroes.
Chahine co-wrote the film with Khaled Youssef. It was photographed by Mohsen Nasr with music by Muhammed Nouh and Kamal el Tawil. Averroes is played by Nour el-Cherif, the caliph by Mahmoud Hamideh, Abdullah by Hani Salama and Marwan by Muhammad Mounir. A detailed account of the film’s production and reception, especially in Egypt can be found in the BFI ‘World Directors’ book on Chahine by Ibrahim Fawal (London 2001). Fawal points out that Chahine deliberately chose to present the dialogue in colloquial Egyptian Arabic for a popular cinema audience rather than the classical Arabic associated with scholars. This is a wonderful film. It is still available on MUBI in the UK and on Netflix in the US. The last image in the film carries Chahine’s rallying cry: “Ideas have wings. No one can stop their flight.” Here’s a short clip from the film in which Marwan ‘rescues’ Abdullah after he has been seduced into joining the fundamentalists.